A ploughman’s and a promenade

We’ve just wrapped up a very pleasant and productive day with our evening meal and then a walk.

We had what I suppose you’d call a ploughman’s lunch this evening.

Some part-cooked petits pains finished off in the oven, some Pilgrim’s Choice Extra Mature Cheddar,  lettuce, tomato, Branston Pickle, home-pickled shallots and some crisps all combined to make a simple but satisfying, delicious and very English meal. We washed it down with cheap rose.

We then took the cats for a walk.

This has become a regular, usually twice daily, ritual. The two cats come either separately or together for a walk down the lane which runs past our neighbours’ garden – complete with beehives – and out into a huge field:

 

P1020208

Oscar came ahead of Django who must have been busy killing voles – something he’s done a lot of lately.

Here’s Oscar catching up with us:

 

It was very hot today, but there’s a definite autumnal ‘twang’ in the air this evening…

Dragonflies, swallows and kir petillant

And still France continues to share its wild life secrets…

A few hours ago, we were sitting outside – taking a smoke and drinks break before yet another stage of the fucking interminable process of putting together an Ikea Hemnes wardrobe – when Mrs Shark exclaimed that she’d just seen the biggest hornet ever.

Closer examination of the ‘hornet’ revealed that it was, in fact, this:

P1010791

It’s a Broad-bodied Chaser – or so Google has reliably informed me – a female.

Never seen one of those before.

Amazing wings – almost like Tiffany glass…

Whilst I was typing the first part of this blog entry – sitting in the dining room with a JPS 100 and another (sic) nice glass of kir petillant – there was a great commotion when a swallow flew in through the doors and Oscar caught it.

As far as we know, this is the first bird that he’s ever actually managed to get between his jaws.

I managed to get it off him and – fortunately – it seemed remarkably unphased and uninjured and flew off out of my hands when I took it outside.

My god, but it was beautiful…

I feel doubly blessed now – and, after my fourth glass of kir – very full of honhomie.

Just call me Mr Congeniality…

…better had, or I’ll twat you one…

Footnote: the photo was taken by me with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5 compact camera.

Tomorrow, the world…

Out of the two Maine Coons we have, Django is by far and away the better hunter, with many bird and small mammal kills to his name.

However, Oscar achieved a first today – as far as we know – by cornering a snake.

Whilst we were having lunch in the garden, we saw that Oscar was busy jumping and pouncing on something. On closer investigation, it proved to be a grass snake about 70 cm long which Oscar had got backed up against the trunk of the large oak tree in the center of our garden.

We distracted Oscar so that the snake could escape, although he saw where it had slithered off to and watched that spot for an hour afterwards.

I’ve been wearing gloves to clear undergrowth of stones and sticks before I strim in case of snakes and, having seen the grass snake that Oscar was facing off to, I’m glad I have.

There are adders about, I’ve been told, and although their bite isn’t fatal, I don’t fancy finding that out the hard way…

Stop press, Oscar just caught a frog.

So, that’s the animal kingdom sewn up – Django has the birds and mammals and Oscar has the reptiles and amphibians…

Fussy eaters…

…always awkward buggers and especially when they’re your own bloody cats.

Since we had Django and Oscar as kittens, and up until we moved to France, they’ve both eaten the same food.

Django ate Felix Choice Cuts pouches – fish only – and some dried Royal Canin Maine Coon food:

 

P1010722

Oscar on the other hand ate nothing apart from the Royal Canin food. In fact, he still doesn’t eat anything else. Each bowl is attacked with equal relish and as if it was filet steak, foie gras or caviar…

 

P1010719

 

Fortunately, we’ve managed to wean Django onto Whiskas which is often on special offer here and he’ll now eat the pouched poultry varieties as well as the fish.

However, supplying Oscar with what he likes has become rather less easy. Last year, we ordered 30kg of the Royal Canin food from a company in the UK. It cost us about £140 with free delivery and arrived less than 48 hours after I placed the order – fabulous service and a great price.

Here, in France, it’s amazingly expensive, about 50% more, which is bad enough, but when you think that Royal Canin is a French company, it’s fucking ridiculous.

And that’s the main problem relocating to France – some things are stupidly expensive, although we reckon it just about evens out when you take into account the fact that some aspects of the household budget are cheaper.

However, after discovering that the company we ordered from last year no longer delivers here, we found another UK pet suppliers that will deliver to us and, although more expensive, 20kg delivered here will still work out about 33% cheaper than buying it in France.

The moral is, I suppose, to shop clever whenever possible. So, we keep our eyes peeled for special offers – although the BOGOF culture hasn’t really reached here yet – and then stock up:

  • Pork leg joints at €2.50 a kilo? Grab half a dozen and slap ‘em in the freezer!

  • Twin pack of Palmolive washing up liquid at just over the price of a single bottle? Get 3 packs for the store cupboard!
  • Cheap tomatoes? Make a vat of pasta sauce and freeze it!

Also, French value brands seem to be better than their UK counterparts, with Super U’s Bien Vu dark roast coffee offering amazing value, for example.

However, it’s clear that what was once a cheap country, compared to the UK at least, is no longer cheap.

So, it’s by no means all biere et boules here.

On the other hand, I haven’t seen a single chav since I was over in the UK last December and that counts for a lot…

Ginger bastards update

Time for some long overdue cat news…

Over the year in the house we rented whilst we looked for, bought and finally moved into our own property here in the Mayenne, our two Maine Coon cats settled in to ex-pat life very well indeed.

Django, now almost fully grown at 4, had a particularly good year chalking up many kills including mice, voles and a mole, as well as many birds of several species.

That wren didn’t stand a fucking chance…

Oscar, Django’s half brother and nephew (work that one out!) isn’t much of a hunter, although he  did his best with flies, moths and craneflies.

Oscar is now bigger than his uncle with another year to grow so he seems almost certain to become one of the bigger Maine Coons and I’m glad to say that along with this growth spurt he’s become a very affectionate and companionable cat. Django is a bit more aloof, although still fantastic company.

Now, the process of change has to start all over again for them.

We’ve been here for almost 2 weeks, during which the cats have been kept in. After a few puddles and turds Oscar has finally started to use the litter tray which is something he never did a year ago when we first came over here. I’m inclined to think that this shows that the disruption of moving here wasn’t as great for him as last year when the two cats had to travel on the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Caen without us.

Liberation day is this coming Saturday when the cats of war will be unleashed upon this tiny and unsuspecting community and Ginger Bastardom will reign in this corner of a foreign field…

Kitteh update

Our two Maine Coons, Django and Oscar, are an important part of our lives here. They’re great companions, marvellous entertainment and very efficient footwarmers now that it’s getting colder here.

We were a little concerned that with pet insurance being so limited here and thus deciding not to bother with it, when it came to vaccination booster time we’d have to hock a kidney or two.

However, we found a recommended veterinary practice a few miles away from us with a vet whose English is good, so we took Oscar for his booster and went away after he’d had a thorough health check and injection, having parted with a mere 40 Euros – about half the cost of a similar appointment in the UK.

I have to say that the two ginger bastards have settled here very well.

Django continues to decimate the wild life and just 10 minutes ago he appeared at the door with a vole in his mouth. As far as we can tell, Oscar doesn’t seem to be a rodent killer but if there’s an insect buzzing around he can be relied on to chase it down mercilessly.

Both cats seem to enjoy sacking out in front of the fire and I don’t think they’ve ever been more relaxed.

P1010457  Oscar

P1010380

Django

Oscar continues to grow and although he’s a year younger than his half brother Django he’s now considerably bigger and heavier. Some Maine Coons can grow to a huge size and I think that Oscar shows all the signs of being one of these.

Here in strike-torn France…

…the local fuel situation (Mayenne – 53) doesn’t seem very hopeful. We went to Pouance (in the neighbouring departement)  today – a 20km round trip – to get some bits and pieces and we would have filled up at the Super U if they’d had any 95 unleaded but they only had diesel. We found the same situation at the Total garage next door.

We still have over three-quarters of a tank left, but with two more strike days announced (one for next week on the 28th) and the unions obviously heartily pissed off with the retirement legislation, as well as the broader grievances they have with Sarko, it’s anybody’s fucking guess when things are going to settle down here.

The interweb seems curiously short on information as to where you can still find petrol. Although some details are available on the ex–pat forums they’re very sketchy and seem to concentrate on where there isn’t any petrol, which is rather unhelpful.

Where we are – in the arse-end of nowhere – fuel’s important and it’s not as if I can see if there’s any fuel after a 2 minute walk, which is what I could do when we lived where we did in the UK.

That’s not a moan though – I wouldn’t want to be back in the UK. With Halloween coming up there was always the risk that your house or car would get an egging and, with Bonfire Night close behind, fireworks being let off at any hour of the day or night.

Luckily, neither occasions are celebrated here in France and even if they were, stuck out here in a hamlet in one of only 5 houses I don’t think much would be kicking off.

The strikes and industrial action are a nuisance, admittedly, but with careful use of the car we should be OK for a couple of weeks. We’re well stocked-up with wood, food, cat food, booze and other essentials and we can bake our own bread. The only thing we might run out of is cigarettes and the bar-tabac in the village is only a 10 minute walk away.

We’re quite snug here – Mrs Shark has a glass of sparkling wine, I have a beer, the cats are sacked out with us by a blazing log fire, there’s a pot of beef and dumpling stew on the go and the house is clean and tidy. Although there might be more exciting ways to spend a Saturday night – Miss Marple and then Wallender are on TV tonight – it’s a remarkably relaxed and stress-free one which suits us just fine.

Time to crack open another beer methinks.

A votre santé!

Gotcha!

Right…we’ve had the wasps, the hornets and the daddy longlegs…

Now we’ve discovered we have mice.

If I could, I’d have the most toxic mouse killer available salted all around the house but that’s not an option I’m happy with given that we have cats – two hulking great Maine Coon males called Django and Oscar.

Django* has caught a fair few mice while we’ve been here (along with numerous voles, moles, lizards, assorted birds – from sparrows to pigeons – and even a bat) but there’s limits to where even he can go in the house to catch them so last Friday we invested in a couple of mouse traps.

To start with, I baited one with some cheese (Seriously Strong cheddar) and placed it in one of the kitchen cupboards and we woke up the next morning to find this:

P1010356 - Copy

That’s one dead motherfucker…

We were dead chuffed to say the least and our feelings of success swept aside any feelings of sentiment we might have had for the little fucker.

Subsequent attempts to slaughter mice have been unsuccessful, but I’m guessing they learn where the traps are left so tonight it’s going to be two traps and in different places.

I suppose it’s all part of rural life – not something we’ve had much experience of before moving here. To judge by the tubs of raticide and souricide you see in the shops here, rodent pests are quite common so we’re not alone.

*As for Oscar, he seems more interested in catching moths…

Flies in the ointment

I can report that Django is continuing with his protracted killing spree. Every morning the dead and mutilated birds, mice and voles we find strewn around the lawn are testament to his hunting prowess. We should have called him ‘Nimrod’.

P1010249  “What can I disembowel next?”

Not wishing to be outdone by the ginger bastard, we’ve embarked on a murder fest of epic proportions against the biggest pest of all – flies.

I daresay that living next to a field with a small herd of heifers doesn’t help with this problem, but the insects which plague us aren’t what I used to call ‘shit flies’ as a kid – the yellowy-brown ones that congregate on cowpats. They’re just common flies, but there’s the rub…they’re very fucking common indeed.

In the drive to eradicate every fly in this area of France we’ve tried many methods:

Fly swatters – These work if you aim right but you’re picking the buggers off one fly at a time. Yes, it’s very satisfactory killing the motherfuckers, but time-consuming with this number of insects.

Fly Spray – This is very effective but seems to have no residual effect, no matter which brand we try. Sure, it kills those flies within the range of the aerosol droplets but an hour or so later the bastards are back. This surprised us, as our past experience of French insecticides led us to believe that the various sprays and powders available here were rather more lethal than their British counterparts. I recall our first gite holiday – in Brittany – when we were plagued with ants. We found a powder in a supermarket which claimed to provide a lethal barrier to ants, so we sprinkled it all around the outside walls of the gite in the evening. In the morning we woke to find ourselves surrounded by hundreds of dead ants along with…dead toads…dead mice…dead sheep…the stuff was fucking lethal! Still, we do use fly spray as it kills the flies in the short term and a spray in the bedroom, leaving the door shut for 10 minutes, is effective at night.

Fly papers – Not bad as far as trapping flies goes, and a fresh paper will probably net you 30 or 40 very sticky and doomed flies in a short time, but it’s indiscriminate and I don’t like catching moths with them – particularly when it’s something like a tiger moth. However, the fly papers are regularly renewed – especially in the kitchen.

Insecticidal window stickers – These seem to have a limited effect and with their bright designs they just look like decorative stickers. I think the ones we’ve put up have run out of their lethal vapour. Not the most effective method and not worth renewing. They also have the unfortunate side effect of making it look like you’ve got some hippy living at your house.

Vapour emitting devices – Some are a total waste of money, particularly the ‘passive’ ones that consists of a plastic housing with some sort of impregnated substance in the middle that slowly emits insecticide. However, the variety that plugs into a mains socket seems to be the most effective long term solution to the fly problem. There’s a make called ‘Catch’ which has a bottle of liquid that you screw into a diffuser and then you plug the whole thing into a mains socket. We have two of them and they seem to keep the fly population down pretty effectively, judging by how few flies are flying around and how many end up dead on the floor. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be the only people who’ve given these ‘Catch’ diffusers the thumbs up. We went to three supermarkets for refills last Friday and found the shelves empty.

Fortunately, there seems to be an absence of mosquitoes here. In terms of discomfort, flies are just a nuisance compared to mozzies and their bite. A mosquito bite has to be one of the most irritating things imaginable, as the more you scratch it, the more it itches and, depending where it is, can often swell up. Get a good one on your face and John Hurt in ‘The Elephant Man’ can just fuck right off.

In the interests of feline fairness, here’s a picture of Oscar – who can’t seem to be able to catch anything larger than a moth:

P1010248

Catching up

Well, here we are – back in La Belle France and very glad to be so.

It was lovely catching up with friends and family but the comparative hustle and bustle of the UK – even in Milton Keynes and relatively quiet areas such as the Forest of Dean and the Gloucester countryside – was a real culture shock. So many people and cars and all seemingly in a tear-arse hurry to get somewhere.

Mrs Shark commented on how little I swore in France after hearing me let rip at a driver who cut me up on a roundabout in MK but even she used some colourful language at the utter cunt who overtook a coach just east of Chipping Norton and almost rammed us head on.

Admittedly, there’s more room in France – it’s a bloody big place – but even so, people seem just that bit less hurried and this all seems to contribute towards a more relaxed demeanour, generally speaking.

It’s cherry season here and we’ve come back to a bumper crop. The tree in the garden is laden with ripe red cherries and after bottling some with cognac yesterday, there’s now jam to be made. This means that Mrs Shark has been busy buying jars, thermometers and a great big sterilising machine for said jars.

It seems to be sales time here and we’ve bought some garden furniture and a couple of small barbecues so that we can reciprocate the many invitations we’ve had to go to eat charcoal-blackened meat…

The trip back to the UK also meant that Waterstones and other bookshops got a right rifling and we’ve returned with many, many books, having just about exhausted our supply of new books we brought with us last March.

I can’t recommend anything we’ve just bought (not finished anything yet!) but here are a few titles from the last batch that I can heartily recommend.

Dennis Lehane – The Given Day: the latest novel by one of my favourite authors. It’s a bit of a departure for Lehane as it’s an historical novel. It tells the intertwining stories of a young Irish-American policeman and a black fugitive set in early 20th century Boston. It had me gripped from start to finish and the superb characterisations made me really care about what happened to the two main protagonists.

Anthony Bourdain – Kitchen Confidential: inspirational stuff describing the true life story of a punk chef. It’s like Led Zeppelin hedonism meeting gastronomic armageddon with a seasoning of smack, sex and knives. Genius stuff with Bourdain pulling no punches whatsoever.

William Sansom – Darkfire: The fourth book I’ve read featuring Shardlake – a sort of Tudor sleuth. Again, great characterisation makes you care about the hero and a wry humour and sharp attention to period detail make this a delight to read along with the three others so far published. Sansom captures the atmosphere of Tudor religious/political paranoia very well indeed.

After a week of beautiful weather back in the UK, we’ve come back to even better weather here with heat but not as much humidity as back in the UK. It’s currently about 38 degrees celsius outside our back door and it’s quite bearable. However, it’s starting to cloud up a little and I have a feeling that later today we might well have some spectacular thunderstorms.

(3 hours later)

In typical Mayenne fashion, the clouds just went away after an hour or so of warm breeze and it’s now yet another balmy evening. Barmy too, with 5lbs of cherries stoned and a huge vat of jam bubbling away under the watchful eye of Mrs Shark. 

We’ve just had chicken in satay sauce with noodles. Here’s my own recipe for the dish with a cheat satay sauce:

Mix together 2 tablespoons of crunchy peanut butter with a dessertspoon of dark soy sauce. Add 200ml of boiling water to which you’ve added about half a block of creamed coconut and then mixed to a paste. Blend this into the peanut/soy mix and add half a teaspoon of minced red chilli – more if you want it hotter. Stir into sauteed sliced chicken breast, red peppers and mange-tout peas. Serve with thin egg noodles.

‘33’ beer is currently 6 euros and 5 cents for a pack of 30 25cl bottles at the Super U this week. Goes very well, chilled to buggery, with the above dish.

Picked up some chicken rillettes on offer – let’s hope they’re as good as the pork ones.

After last week, during our sojourn in the UK we had three barbecues. Once we got back we bought all the kit and have had a couple here – one with sausages and pork chops and one with brochettes made of cubed beef, mushroom and red pepper. It seems that BBQs are the most popular way of entertaining during the summer months, so we’re having one with guests the weekend after next.

Mrs Shark claims to have seen a hoopoe whilst we were out driving to Pouance this morning. That evens out the Golden Oriole I saw the week before last. Last night we went out looking for glow worms and found several. There also seems to be a pair of kestrels that have taken up residence near here. They were both out hunting yesterday, so perhaps they’re working on a second brood.

I’ve made contact with a British guy living nearby who sings and plays guitar. We’re meeting on Saturday. If we think we can play together then gigs are – apparently – waiting. Be nice to play again. I have to admit that I’ve hardly picked up a guitar in the time I’ve been here so it’ll be good to have an excuse to play, being as I’m such a lazy sod!

The cats are pitiful in the heat – they just sack out under the hedge for hours and then emerge when it’s cooler. It’s too hot for even Django’s bloodlust – the local wildlife is safe during the day, although I should imagine that the nocturnal variety still gets an ass-whupping. The two cats are pathetically grateful to be home and although we can heartily recommend Les Creature Comforts at St Aubin Fosse Louvain for your cat or dog’s vacation, run by the lovely Stephanie Lack, there ain’t no place like home. For us and the ginger bastards!